Situated in the Upper Midwest region and bordered by six states, as well as the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers is Iowa. Most famous for being an agricultural powerhouse with staples like corn, acclaim for the state is also given for its natural beauty.
Much more than crop fields, landscapes throughout Iowa include rolling hills, tallgrass prairie, major rivers, and quiet creeks. Some of the most dramatic natural features are the Loess Hills, Maquoketa Caves, Crystal Lake Cave, Ledges State Park, and the Effigy Mounds. The diverse variety of landscapes means that visitors can have plenty of adventures during their trip.
Apart from nature, there are a few urban cities worth checking out in Iowa. Major metropolitan centers are Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ames, Iowa City, and Dubuque. In these friendly communities, visitors can indulge in some of the local dishes like Iowa ham balls, Scotcheroos, and sour cream raisin pie.
Overlooked as a vacation destination, this state is filled with a surprising list of attractions and activities. For tourists that enjoy fewer crowds, the tranquility of Iowa’s landscapes are perfect for a relaxing getaway.
Livin’ La Vida Iowa
History of “The Hawkeye State”
The first inhabitant of Iowa, American Indians, arrived more than 13,000 years ago. Living as hunter-gatherers, they gradually made the change to become settled farmers. About 3,000 years ago, evidence points towards the use of domesticated plants like maize. Just prior to European exploration, tribes living on the land included the Dakota, Ioway, Ho-Chunk, Otoe, and Omaha.
In 1673, the land was first mapped by Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, two European explorers that traveled along the Mississippi River. For 90 years, the land was claimed as French territory until transfer of power was given to Spain in 1763 after France was defeated in the French and Indian War.
Spain didn’t have much interest in the land, but they did grant trading licenses to French and British immigrants who lived along the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers. In 1800, Spain would lose the land to Napoleon Bonaparte after the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. By 1812, there was a war with the British taking control from the US. It wasn’t until after 1814 that the US re-established their control by building Fort Armstrong.
Prior to Iowa becoming a state, Native Americans were removed from their land. Many moved to reservations in nearby states. Iowa would become the 29th state in December 1846. Throughout the Civil War, the state was loyal to the Union. While the state did provide soldiers, the largest support for the Union came through food supplies to armies and Union cities in the east.
Since the late 1800s, the state has continued to develop its agricultural industries. The main crops grown are corn and soybeans. Land is also used for pigs and cattle. Each year, Iowa produces billions of dollars of agricultural goods with most of the products shipped to destinations all across the nation.
Capital City of Des Moines
First incorporated in 1851 as Fort Des Moines, the anime was shortened in 1857 to Des Moines. The city has since grown to a population of 214,133 people (in 2020), making it the largest city and capital of Iowa. It was named after the Des Moines River, which flows through the center. Evolving through the decades, Des Moines has filled itself with new life, culture, arts, and landscapes.
The city has been particularly well rated for families, as many of the attractions are designed for younger visitors. Families visiting the city will enjoy spending time together at fun attractions like the Blank Park Zoo, Science Center of Iowa, Pappajohn Sculpture Park, and the Downtown Farmers’ Market.
Older visitors will appreciate seeing the Des Moines Art Center, Salisbury House & Gardens, State Historical Museum, Better Homes and Gardens Test Gardens, Terrace Hill, Jasper Winery, and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. To break away from the crowds, visitors can walk through Gray’s Lake Park, Water Works Park, or Jester Park.
Cedar Rapids, “City of Five Seasons”
On the banks of the Cedar River, Cedar Rapids is the second largest city in the state with a population of 137,710 as of 2020. Called the “City of Five Seasons”, the name comes from the period of time when locals enjoy all four seasons – this is referred to as the “Fifth Season”. While the city is mostly used for manufacturing, it’s interwoven with arts and culture, as well as Czech and Slovak heritage.
There are many things to do, but narrowing it down to the top attractions, visitors can balance their time between indoor and outdoor venues. Visitors are encouraged to see the Cedar Rapid Museum of Art, National Czech and Slovak Museum, Czech Village and New Bohemia Main Street, NewBo City Market, Brucemore, Bever Park, The History Center, Indian Creek Nature Center, and the Ushers Ferry Historic Village.
Davenport, “Iowa’s Front Porch”
On the eastern border of Iowa is Davenport. Supporting 101,724 residents in 2020, the city’s proximity to the border with Illinois has given it the nickname of “Iowa’s Front Porch”. Nature sits at the forefront of the cityscape with the Mississippi River and more than 50 local parks. In addition to all the green space, there is a long list of attractions that include museums, galleries, shops, and restaurants.
The best green spaces are Lindsay Park, Credit Island, Duck Creek Parkway, and the Vander Veer Botanical Park. For educational and fun activities, visitors can head to the Putnam Museum and Science Center, Figge Art Museum, German American Heritage Center, and the B.J and Mabel Palmer Mansion. Additional highlights include the Davenport Skybridge, Fright House Farmers’ Market, and the Village of East Davenport.
Ames, “Smart Choice”
Ames is a small city that is home to Iowa State University, along with 66,427 residents in 2020. With an enrollment of 27,854 students during the 2023 school year, nearly half of Ames’ population comes from ISU. With so many young people congregated in one city, this city has a reputation of being fresh and fun.
Well-established as a hotspot for locals and tourists is the downtown area. Many of the shops and restaurants were established years ago, but they have remained as staples in the community. Used as a gathering place, Downtown Ames is great for social gatherings, leisure activities, and nightlife.
Specific attractions that visitors will love are the Reiman Gardens, Brunnier Art Museum, Christian Petersen Art Museum, Ames History Museum, Furman Aquatic Center, Ledges State Park, Brookside Park, and the Ada Hayden Heritage Park.
Iowa City, “Athens of the Midwest”
Another city destination tied to an educational institution is Iowa City with a population of 74,828 as of 2020. It’s here that the University of Iowa’s campus draws in students, families, young professionals, and new residents. At one point, the city was the state capital before it was moved to Des Moines.
While the university certainly generates plenty of tourism, Iowa City is filled to brim with tourist activities. Whether you’re looking to explore the city and its history or enjoy nature, you’re guaranteed to find your happy place in this Upper Midwest destination. Popular attractions include the Old Capitol, Downtown Iowa City, Coralville Reservoir, Terry Trueblood, Hickory Hill Park, Maquoketa Caves, and Wilson’s Orchard.
Dubuque, “The Key City”
A part of the Tri-State Area, where Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin intersect, is the city of Dubuque. Supporting 59,667 residents as of 2020, the city has become a major center for transportation, shipping, and commerce. Tourism to the area has also been established because of the city’s natural beauty and culture. Part of the stunning cityscape is owed to the mighty Mississippi River, which runs right by Dubuque.
Downtown Dubuque is a tourist favorite not only because it is filled with shops and restaurants, but also because it features grandiose 19th century architecture. Nestled within the downtown area are more than 70 historic places that are listed on the National Register. A few of these are the Cathedral of St. Raphael, the Grand Opera House, and the Dubuque County Courthouse.
When looking for things to do, well-rated attractions include the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, the Fenelon Place Elevator Company, Eagle Point Park, Dubuque Museum of Art, Dubuque Farmers’ Market, and the Mississippi Riverwalk. Additionally, the city is famous for its casinos, which are situated in two complexes just northeast of downtown.
Formed by the wind and made of loess soil are the Loess Hills in Western Iowa. Although the hills can be found in the neighboring states of Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska too. In Iowa, the hills are very unique because of their dramatic depths, which can reach up to 200 feet.
Living throughout the hills are endangered prairie species of flora and fauna. Protecting some of the last prairie landscapes in the US, visitors should miss out on seeing these natural wonders at places like the Loess Hills Scenic Byway and Loess Hills State Forest.
Maquoketa Caves State Park
Arguably the most beautiful state park in Iowa is Maquoketa. The park landscape is filled with towering bluffs, rock formations, forests, and caves. A few of the most visited caverns are Shinbone Cave, Wye Cave, Dancehall Cave, and Hernando’s Hideaway. Permitted activities at the park include camping, picnicking, and hiking.
Most visitors will explore the park on foot by using the trail system that stretches for 6 miles. The trail links some of Maquoketa’s most famous caves, as well as providing access to scenic overlooks. Don’t miss the Natural Bridge above Raccoon Creek or the Balance Rock, which weighs 17 tons.
Crystal Lake Cave
Hidden underneath cornfields is the Crystal Lake Cave. Famous for its crystal formations, visitors can book a tour to see the 3,000 foot long, main cavern. Everything is well-lit and the path is graded as easy.
While the cave is open to the public, reservations are required. Tours are only given during the spring, summer, and fall months. Within the complex, there is also a gem and fossil mining areas, as well as a gift shop.
Ledges State Park
Ledges State Park is one of the most stunning spots on the Des Moines River. Renowned for its sandstone ledges that tower at heights of 100 feet, this state park is geologically and historically significant to the state.
The best way to see the rock formations is by taking the park’s main, 4-mile long trail. Visitors should keep in mind that portions of the trail are quite steep. More gentle paths include the trail to Lost Lake and the Oak Woods shelter.
Other activities include camping and the streamwalk. At the ledges, there are two shelters available for reservation – the Oak Woods picnic shelter and the Lower Ledges shelter. These shelters are for daytime use. Overnight camping sites can be reserved or there are a few that can be taken on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Effigy Mounds National Monument
Protecting more than 200 American Indian mounds, the Effigy Mounds National Monument is much more than an outdoor recreational area. This national monument is focused on educating visitors about the history of mound builders and the cultural significance of their creations. A beautiful monument, visitors will be awestruck at the natural beauty, as well as the local wildlife, which they may be lucky enough to see along the trail.
Often omitted from travel lists, Iowa is a hidden gem in the Upper Midwest. Looking beyond the agricultural fields, discover the many unique attractions, fun cities, and historic sites. Without the popularity and crowds of other destinations, Iowa is like a personal paradise for curious travelers. If you’re willing to wander from the beaten path, the Hawkeye State is a strong candidate for an unforgettable vacation.
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